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Last.fm unveils 'free global jukebox'

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London-based music site Last.fm announced today that it has convinced all four major record labels to let its users listen to their catalogues on demand and for free, worldwide. There's a catch, though - listeners are limited to three plays of a particular song. Last.fm will offer a new subscription package for what it calls "unlimited access".

Simpler arrangements with licensing syndicates CD Baby, IODA and others mean Last.fm has access to songs from 150,000 indie labels too.

It's the first to achieve the feat, and pours salt on the wounds of closest rival Pandora, which cut off international listeners earlier this month. It blamed its inability to cut reasonable licensing deals.

Last.fm was adopted by US media conglomerate CBS for $280m last year. Having a dad with radio 1.0 muscle has clearly done wonders for its negotiating clout.

Users in the UK, US and Germany have immediate access to the new service, with the rest of the world on board in "the coming months".

Universal, Sony BMG, EMI and Warner haven't quite handed over the keys to the kingdom, however. Limits on the licenses mean Last.fm's new jukebox can only allow each track to be streamed to a site member three times before asking them to cough up for a download via affiliate links to iTunes, Amazon and 7digital. After that the song won't be available for streaming, a spokesman said.

To begin with, the majors are putting up 3.5 million songs between them, but not their entire catalogues. Led Zeppelin and The Beatles remain elusive to legal digital music fans, for example.

It'll all be funded by targeted banner ads on the Last.fm website. Attempts to offer free downloads with audio ads before the song by Peter Gabriel's We7 have failed to make a significant impact so far.

Also today, the site announced a new royalty scheme for unsigned acts. Struggling artists will be able to upload their groundbreaking work to Last.fm's servers and pocket a fraction of a penny direct each time it's streamed. ®

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